Murder Meets #MeToo in France

What might have been just another tawdry crime of passion has turned into a major social controversy over violent husbands vs. ‘overbearing women’ in France.

Sebastien Bozon/Getty

NICE, France—Was 34-year-old Jonathann Daval the “perfect son-in-law”? An all-around good guy? Did he just flip out in one fatal moment because of his domineering, castrating wife, and then kill her?  

Or was he a sociopath blubbering through a press conference about his “missing” spouse, and crying crocodile tears during her funeral after her partially burned body was found buried in the woods in the Haute-Saône? 

Last week, after more than three months playing the devastated widower who claimed his wife vanished after going jogging, Daval was arrested by police. He said he was innocent. One day later he confessed to killing her but said it was an accident after an argument.

Time was, this murder that’s gripped France since October would have just been a pulpy tale of a stormy marriage complicated by struggles with infertility and, possibly, sexual dysfunction on the part of the two-faced husband.

Instead the strangulation of Alexia Daval, a 29-year-old bespectacled blond bank employee in Gray-la-ville in eastern France, has turned into the country’s unlikely #MeToo murder—in part pitting France’s minister of gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, 35, the youngest member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Cabinet, against Jonathann Daval’s outspoken defense attorney.

Randall Schwerdoffer, one of two lawyers from nearby Besançon who is representing Daval, suggested that his client might have been provoked into killing Alexia because she had an “overbearing personality. Jonathann felt completely crushed and put down.”

Police said they read text messages from Alexia to her husband, an IT worker, written sometime before her death that were “verbally violent” and included her calling him “impotent.” The two had been trying to have a baby for a while without success and police say the tension caused serious problems in the marriage.

An enraged Schiappa took to Twitter calling Schwerdoffer’s words an example of “victim-blaming.”

“So she had an overbearing personality and for that she was assassinated?” Schiappa later asked on French radio. “I find that scandalous. By saying that we legitimize femicides, we legitimize the fact that every three days there is a woman killed by the blows of her partner. It’s not passionate, it’s not an argument, it’s not a passionate drama, it’s an assassination. We must stop minimizing domestic violence, stop finding excuses. There is nothing, nothing, that justifies striking your wife or your partner.”

Schiappa insisted on calling Daval’s murder an assassination, a point she had to walk back Monday when several prominent French commentators criticized her for using the term and for joining the “internet guillotine” while serving in the government.

Schwerdoffer remained unmoved by Schiappa’s attack and the outpouring of anger directed at him on social media.

“What I said was shocking but I don’t care what people think,” Schwerdoffer told The Daily Beast on Monday. “In our country we need people who are allowed to say the truth. It doesn’t excuse him. It’s just to understand why a nice guy suddenly became a killer for a minute and to understand Alexia and Jonathann. Why he did what he did. A woman can be violent too and we have to say it.”

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Schwerdoffer says that Jonathann suffered from erectile dysfunction which made the texts from Alexia all that much more painful.

Alexia Daval’s disappearance on Oct. 28 initially struck such a chord that more than 10,000 people turned out in a march and rally for her on Nov. 5 in her hometown of Gray (population 5,000) in northeastern France. Women (and some men) all over the country undertook symbolic “runs” to honor Alexia and other victims of violence against women.

“With these sporting gestures, you are making Alexia into a strong symbol, one of the freedom for all women to enjoy running and to live,” Alexia’s mother, Isabelle Fouillot, said during the rally as she wept.

In 2016 in France, 123 women were killed by their partners, ex-partners, or husbands. That works out to be one murder every three days.

But Daval was not suspected of being one of those husbands, at least not on the surface.

In fact, Alexia’s parents seemed to set aside their own grief to be his biggest supporters, flanking him at the November rally as he clutched a rose and at Alexia’s funeral where he looked distraught and was said to be “fragile.”

“Alexia was my biggest supporter, my oxygen, the force who pushed me to surpass myself in all my physical challenges,” Jonathann said through tears at the rally as his in-laws propped him up by the shoulders.

Alexia’s father called him the “perfect” son-in-law and all three kept in almost daily contact after the murder until Jonathann was arrested.

The Fouillots had considered Jonathann to be family ever since he and Alexia met when she was 15. They allowed him to move into the family home with her soon after. The couple finally married in 2015.

When Jonathann was first questioned by police, he explained the scratches and bites on his hand were the result of an argument he and his wife had that turned physical right before her disappearance.

He was arrested last week when police checked the tracking device on his work car whose tire tracks were found close to the woodland where Alexia’s body was found hidden under branches. He denies burning the body.

The lawyer for Alexia’s parents said they are “flabbergasted” by Jonathann’s confession.

“They didn’t see it coming,” said Jean-Marc Florand. “They want to understand.”